North Carolina state officials have ordered a new election in the state’s 9th Congressional District after days of explosive testimony and a lengthy investigation showed that the Republican candidate funded and helped support an absentee ballot fraud scheme.
On the fourth day of hearings, the North Carolina State Board of Elections unanimously voted for a do-over of the contested election, calling the midterm race “tainted.”
“I believe the number is sufficient in itself to call for a new election, but it certainly was a tainted election," chair Bob Cordle said Thursday afternoon. “The people of North Carolina deserve a fair election.”
The decision came after Mark Harris, the Republican at the center of the contested race, decided not to testify, altered his defense, and called for a new vote.
“I believe a new election should be called,” Harris said. “It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th District’s general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”
The announcement means there will be a new primary, followed by a general election in the fall for the 9th District, which encompasses most of the southeast portion of the state, including parts of Charlotte.
The decision concludes a chaotic local midterm race that became a national scandal after evidence showed that a small-town political operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. was harvesting absentee ballots.
Evidence and testimony from this week’s hearings revealed that Harris hired Dowless, famous for his suspect get-out-the-vote tactics, to help amass more votes in the district, contradicting the Republican’s earlier assertions that he had not been involved with the scandal.
Dowless spearheaded an illegal operation where he paid volunteers to deliver and then collect absentee ballots. Workers testified before the state election board that they had repeatedly filled out ballots for residents.
In December, officials said they had uncovered evidence that “will show that a coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election in Bladen and Robeson counties.”
Harris declared victory after narrowly edging out his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by 905 votes in a district that houses three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. Officials noticed, though, that Harris won 61% of absentee ballots in Bladen County when only 19% of Republican residents requested one.
The state board's investigation and testimonies this week showed:
Absentee ballots were collected directly from voters — which is against the law — with no witnesses signing or only one of two required witnesses signing. Unsealed ballots were also collected.
Dowless held the ballots at his home or office — including blank or incomplete ballots — before turning them in.
He instructed people to falsely sign as witnesses.
And to cover his conduct, he made sure the ink matched on the forms, that mailed ballots were sent from a post office near the voter, and that ballots were taken to the post office in small batches.
After the election fraud allegations erupted, the North Carolina board of elections voted unanimously against certifying Harris’ win and, along with the FBI and federal prosecutors, opened an investigation. McCready also withdrew his concession and immediately started preparing for a second election.
"From the moment the first vote was stolen in North Carolina, from the moment the first voice was silenced by election fraud, the people have deserved justice," the Democrat said in a statement after the new vote was announced. "Today was a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina."
Before Thursday, Harris had refused to abandon his narrow victory, but newly released text messages and damning testimony from his son prodded the pastor to admit that some of his past recollections and previous assertions were “incorrect.” The congressional candidate had contended that no one had ever cautioned him about Dowless or any election fraud.
However, in an emotional testimony on Wednesday, John Harris said that he had repeatedly warned his father since 2016 to steer clear of Dowless because of the campaign worker’s shady, checkered past and involvement with previous local and state elections.
The 29-year-old, who is an assistant US attorney in North Carolina, said he had reviewed 2016 primary results after his father defeated incumbent Robert Pittinger and grew concerned after the “numbers didn’t add up.” He then noticed other questionable outcomes in Bladen County, specifically with absentee ballots.
Harris sent his father multiple emails warning him about Dowless’s campaign practices, specifically that he was a “shady character” and that “collecting ballots was a felony.”
In a phone call on April 7, 2017, the day the Republican candidate met Dowless, his son told him that he thought “they were illegally collecting ballots.”
“I thought everything McCrae Dowless was doing was illegal, and I was right,” John Harris said, adding that his father did not know the extent of Dowless’s alleged illegal actions and that they were lied to.
”I love my dad, and I love my mom. I certainly have no vendetta against them,” John Harris said, prompting tears from his father. ”I think they made mistakes in this process, and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.”
Other emails and text messages chipped away at Harris’s defense that he was not closely involved with the political operative. In March 2017, the Republican sent a text to Judge John Marion, a known advocate for Dowless, asking to meet with Dowless.
In April 2017, Harris and Dowless met at a furniture store, and the political operative said he had a program that got people to fill out absentee ballot request forms and then sent his workers to check on these residents and see if they needed help voting.
“We don’t take ballots,” Harris said the campaign contractor had repeatedly promised him.
Dowless refused to testify before the election board and has not yet been charged with any crimes in connection to the 2018 midterm race.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper called the election board's decision to hold an entirely new election, which will bring a new host of candidates and a revamped onslaught of fundraisers, advertisements, and visits from politicians to the state, "the right thing" for voters.
"People must have confidence that their vote matters and this action sends a strong message that election fraud must not be tolerated," the Democrat said in a statement.
Inside the ballot harvesting operation:
For years, Dowless has been at the center of several voting controversies and involved in campaign work since at least 2006.
The 62-year-old former used car salesman — who has an extensive criminal history — has built a reputation as a political operative who runs questionable get-out-the-vote efforts, paying people in cash to request scores of absentee ballots and then go to residents’ homes to either help them fill out the ballots or collect the ballots, several former workers involved with the operation told BuzzFeed News. It is illegal for a third party to submit an absentee ballot in North Carolina.
Campaign finance records show Dowless was hired by the political consulting firm Red Dome to conduct get out the vote efforts on behalf of Harris, who also barely won the 2018 Republican primary election over incumbent Robert Pittenger. Pittenger’s campaign had warned the state’s GOP leaders and officials with the National Republican Congressional Campaign about irregularities in the May primary, the Washington Post reported.
Records show that the Harris campaign paid Red Dome more than $428,000 for “admin and staff and grassroots” operations, and the Republican has contended that he was unaware of any illegal practices. But according to the Post, the congressional candidate ignored warnings about Dowless’s methods and pushed his staff to hire the local operative for his 2018 bid after seeing Dowless’s success in a 2016 election, which is also under investigation. That December, Dowless had testified before the state elections board that he paid workers to collect absentee ballots.
Several of Dowless’s employees have told BuzzFeed News that he paid them to collect absentee ballots from voters so he could submit them to the county — and some sworn ballots were incomplete or unsealed. While the exact details and structure of his operation remains murky, it’s clear that Dowless hired friends, relatives, and others to comb the community for absentee ballots, paying them $150 for every 50 absentee ballot request forms they brought in and $125 for 50 absentee ballots that they gathered, investigators heard.
Jessica Dowless, whose husband is distantly related to McCrae Dowless, described herself as a “housewife [who] needed a part-time job” and said she was one of about six employees. She often worked six days a week tallying the number of Democrats and Republicans who had recently voted. However, she explained, there were times when she did not quite understand what she was doing or what the grand purpose was.
She did say, though, that campaign workers delivered sealed absentee ballots from the homes of people who requested them to Dowless’s office — though North Carolina law forbids third parties from handling those ballots.
Another Bladen County resident named Chris Eason told BuzzFeed News that he signed a blank absentee ballot in the Nov. 6 general election and then handed the unsealed ballot to Dowless. Despite the fact that he did not technically vote, the 47-year-old’s ballot ended up signed, sealed, and witnessed to the county board of elections with his name on it.
Eason recalled one interaction in which he told Dowless he couldn’t find his absentee ballot. The operative then went to his car and retrieved several, he said.
“He’ll have ’em on hand. A lot of the ones I’ve seen was in his personal vehicle,” Eason said.
Eason said he believes Dowless filled out the ballot on his behalf after handing it over.
“He or somebody filled out my ballot — I just signed it,” he said. “I know for a fact they put something in mine, because I don’t vote.”